Color me surprised. The opening paragraph of a Reuters Jan. 1st story claims the Pope said “the world was under threat from unbridled capitalism, terrorism and criminality.” Even though the Pope’s message clearly points to God as the source of our peace, the headline and first paragraph avoid His name like the plague. And even though the entirety of the Pope’s remarks are beautiful theologically and spiritually, the media pull half a sentence from a wonderful homily to make an erroneous economic point.
Read carefully, the Pope is concerned not with capitalism per se, but with “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” If the only change was to impose strict financial regulations, would selfishness and individualistic mindsets be cured? Nay, rather, the root of the problem, which capitalism can expose and which the Pope recognizes, is sin itself. Capitalism does nothing more than provide the most efficient way of generating the goods and services that a society, virtuous or vicious, desires. Movements away from capitalism don’t make citizens more moral; the U.S. is a mixed economy and has been moving steadily away from “unbridled capitalism” since the year 2000, yet there doesn’t seem to be a steady move toward morality since then as a result.
Even worldwide, we are going on several years where the average country’s economic freedom is falling (i.e., moving away from free markets, what Reuters would presumably prefer). This is very bad news:
[N]umerous studies have used data from Economic Freedom of the World to examine the impact of economic freedom on investment, economic growth, income levels, and poverty rates. Virtually without exception, these studies have found that countries with institutions and policies more consistent with economic freedom have higher investment rates, more rapid economic growth, higher income levels, and more rapid reductions in poverty rates.
There will always be a gap between rich and poor, but free markets best provide the opportunity for the poor to increase their absolute (if not relative) standard of living.
Again, though, the Pope isn’t making an economic point but a spiritual point about our dependence on God as our source of peace. Benedict uses Mary as a model of peace in turbulent times:
During the days in which “she gave birth to her first-born son” (Lk 2:7), many unexpected things occurred…In all this, however, Mary remains even tempered, she does not get agitated, she is not overcome by events greater than herself; in silence she considers what happens, keeping it in her mind and heart, and pondering it calmly and serenely. This is the interior peace which we ought to have amid the sometimes tumultuous and confusing events of history.
Even events as tumultuous and confusing as the Great Recession. As politicians consider changes to public policy and regulations in the face of a recession brought on largely by legislation itself, perhaps we can pray that Congress and the President will follow the Pope’s words and Mary’s example, asking for guidance from God and pondering legislative changes calmly and serenely.